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A leap of faith: Beiruti free runner prepares for his shot at global stardom

Having made his mark on Lebanon’s free running scene, Ziad Karam dreams of going global. His chance may be coming
Ziad, in white t-shirt, with the crew as they take a break from free running on a sweltering summer’s day. Most of them met through their love of the sport. (MEE/Felipe Passolas)

BEIRUT - It’s a stifling summer day in Lebanon, and amid the ruins of a 12th century crusader castle, there is a collective intake of breath from those witnessing gravity being defied. 

For the briefest of moments, 22-year-old Ziad Karam’s wiry frame is air bound, his body twisted into a position that seems unfeasible while spinning, upside down, nearly two metres up. Every move is rehearsed down to the minutest detail.

Ziad Karam takes a leap off one of his favourite spots in Lebanon, the remains of a crusader castle in the ancient city of Byblos (MEE/John Owens)

Then his feet touch the ancient pillar that acts as a landing pad, and to the sound of muted praise from his crew - they have grown used to it, after all - he bounds off once again. 

Gap conquered, no problem. 

Ziad Karam and Munir hang out in Beirut’s downtown district. Though Ziad wants to travel the world as a pro, he told MEE he would always consider Lebanon his home (MEE/Felipe Passolas)

Then again, when you are dead set on making it as a world-famous free runner - similar to parkour, but with extra flips -  these little acts of magic become every day stuff. 

A bemused passer-by finds more activity than expected in Byblos’ crusader castle (MEE/John Owens)

Stamping his style

Karam is a leading figure in Lebanon’s free running scene. Whether it is on the mammoth concrete monoliths of the Niemeyer park, an incongruous ode to modernism in the northern city of Tripoli, or dodging security guards while navigating the glistening marble ledges of Beirut’s upmarket shopping district, he has stamped his style on spots across the country. 

The crew take on a spot in a high-end shopping district in downtown Beirut (MEE/Felipe Passolas)

Middle East Eye caught up with Karam as he and his friends roamed the coastal city of Byblos, a UNESCO heritage site overspilling with ancient history and, rather helpfully, old ledges to leap from. 

Ziad Karam and his group of friends stroll through Byblos in search of the next place to practice their skills (MEE/Felipe Passolas)

“I’ve always been a natural monkey,” he explained, with the American accent in his English a testament to the imprint left by watching US TV shows as a youngster.

“I asked a teacher about the physics of doing a flip off a wall, so she explained it,” he added, chuckling, “I then went and did a flip on the wall in front of her.”

Munir perfects his skills in the heart of Byblos while Ziad Karam looks on. Munir hopes to follow in his friend’s footsteps and compete in international events (MEE/Felipe Passolas)

Having been introduced to the world of Lebanese free running by friends, he quickly became a regular fixture at a now-closed gym in Beirut close to where he lived, obsessively spending hours perfecting the twists, vaults and leaps that characterise the sport.

He has since broken out of that world, rejecting the mats, club membership and monthly fees approach taken by some of his peers in favour of the freedom of the streets; but his regime is no less intense. 

With the Art of Motion free running contest in Greece only a few months away, Ziad Karam is in full training mode (MEE/John Owens)

Karam’s self-effacing and laid-back demeanour belies a drive that sees him regularly training until three in the morning, in an effort to reach the rarefied heights of the sponsored pro.

“Some other free runners I’ve found aren’t that serious - they’re worrying about injuring themselves, and the fact they have to work in other jobs,” said Karam, who works for his family’s architecture company.

“I don’t care about that. Plan A is for me to become a professional free runner.”

His parents remain skeptical, but the urgency behind every session is growing as the few days that may just help him live his dream creep ever closer.  

Ziad catches up with a police officer and old friend. Reactions from police and security vary, but according to Ziad Karam it is easier to avoid trouble outside of the capital of Beirut (MEE/Felipe Passolas)

One chance to shine

In early October, some of the world's most talented free runners gathered on the Greek Island of Santorini for Red Bull’s Art of Motion -  one of the sport’s premier events. 

The biggest competition of its kind in the world, it is a place where talent is spotted and careers are made among a labyrinth of whitewash and ocean-blue buildings. 

“I remember seeing this kid running around jumping and doing crazy things without caring about the famous athletes that were next to him - he wasn’t intimidated and that’s what I liked about him,” Dimitris Kyrsanidis, or DK as he is known to his legion of fans, told MEE.

Kyrsanidis, one of the world’s finest free runners, first saw Karam at the competition in 2013 and the pair quickly became friends. 

Ziad Karam and his gang capture their antics on video camera and their trusty GoPro. They then upload the footage online (MEE/Felipe Passolas)

“He’s not so experienced, but every year I have seen progression," Kyrsanidis added

Ahmad Omar shows Ziad footage recorded during their practices. The group have put together a number of videos and posted them online (MEE/Felipe Passolas)

"He's so motivated he never stops, and he's someone who can really make it happen."

Karam certainly wants to make it happen. He is already travelling the globe and uploading videos on the internet to make a name for himself, and is no longer heading to Santorini as a newcomer. 

As the competition gets tougher each year, it is not just the other free runners who stand in his way. 

Overcoming hurdles

It was during a rare foray back in the gym earlier this year that Karam shattered a bone in his leg while attempting a flip off of a high ledge. 

He took this as a sign that he should be doing his workouts outdoors and not in the confines of a gym.

“The doctor doesn’t know I’m not resting it - I’ll do that after the competition, and just ignore it till then like I do every day.”

23-year-old Munir Mokli, a friend of Ziad Karam's, takes a leap while the rest of the group look on (MEE/Felipe Passolas)

There is also the rather more intractable problem of having a Lebanese passport, and all of the slow bureaucratic manoeuvrings and sluggish visa processes that are connected to it, some of which have caused him to miss events abroad. Karam thinks he has got the visa issue sorted out this time. 

Though there is only encouragement and no competition among the small group he trains with, it is obvious his death-defying leaps are the skills they aspire to nurture within themselves.

The locals look on in Byblos, a city with a history stretching back thousands of years and plenty of obstacles to leap from (MEE/Felipe Passolas)

Having been dusted off by Karam and the others following a particular wince-inducing fall after a failed flip off yet another Byblos relic, 16-year-olf Ahmad Omar told MEE:

“Ziad’s on a higher level than the rest of us, it motivates us, makes us want to do better and train more.” 

Having taken a big fall, Ahmad Omar is tended to by the gang. Ziad Karam has been nursing a major leg injury from January, but is ignoring it until after the free running contest in September (MEE/John Owens)

Karam, however, needs little in the way of extra motivation. For him, a love of the sport, and his dream of making it big, are all he needs.

Ziad and Munir hang out in Beirut’s downtown district. Though Ziad wants to travel the world as a pro, he told MEE he would always consider Lebanon his home (MEE/Felipe Passolas)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.